BOOK REVIEW / Flashy segments of themselves: William Scammell looks at three recent collections

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AMERICAN breathologists, as Ian Hamilton once called them, seldom do things by halves. When they write short lines, by God they're short, and when they write long ones, as C K Williams does in A Dream of Mind (Bloodaxe pounds 6.95), the entire format of the book has to be enlarged to accommodate them Walt Whitman in Cinemascope. Williams has been hailed as an original, and certainly he has interesting ways of applying the lemon-squeezer, but the manner is inch-thick, more or less commanding you to sit up and take notice as its finicky syntax and strenuous subtlety worry away at friendship, dreams, adultery, consciousness, death, betrayal.

He's well aware of the dangers, as a passage about artists in 'She, Though' makes clear: 'They'd find a mode of doing what their gift had offered them, then stay with it too long,/

and find later that they'd used it up and gotten stuck in some too flashy segment of themselves'. Like the New York school, he's always happy to dive into the whys and wherefores of the poetry business. As for the technique, a spot-count suggests that the norm is a 23-syllable line, often broken in half into a sort of double pentameter. The rhythms are prosy, earnest, sincere, but when he breaks cover into lyric, as in the last half-line of the last poem ('her final, searing loveliness had been revealed'), the banality is plain to see and hear.

What makes him worth sticking with is his honesty about the way we live now. A Jamesian drama of consciousness alternates with up-to-the-minute soul-speak. He can do 'Baby Talk', too, in a poem about an eighth-grade crush, and write excellently about death. Beneath the luxuriant scrollwork there's a Raymond Carver-like sensibility, busily grilling the Dame Confusion who feeds us whisky, travel, sex, remorse, then drops us off on the cold hillside.

Stephen Romer's second collection Plato's Ladder (OUP pounds 6.99) confirms the many good opinions of his first. He writes very often in reflective, slant-rhymed couplets which forgo epigrammatic closure in favour of an engaging lyric warmth. Wit isn't entirely absent but it's of an inclusive rather than a sharply exclusive kind, one that calls on all our human resources, both out in the real world and in 'the Polynesia of (our) own invention'. When aestheticism threatens, it is countered by a robust immersion in the contingencies of 'concrete . . . neon . . . sludge'. His nimble, delicate imagination is itself a ladder, a bridge, a mind-set of high quality.

If Derek Mahon's distinctive voice can sometimes be heard behind Romer's, Geoffrey Hill seems to be the presiding genius in Gabriel Levin's Sleepers of Beulah (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 12.99). This is a fine debut by a youngish Israeli poet who writes with minimum fuss and maximum engagement about the flora and fauna of a 'land that wolfs its inhabitants', about his 'mixed feelings' over 'this funerary business' of art, and about living in a place governed by biblical apparitions and jet planes. The tone of voice is pitched at high poetic altitude, where the air can grow a little thin and cold. But the book's slender 43 pages belies its ambition, which is immense. It demands, and rewards, several readings.